After a recent meeting in Florida, without elaborating on the exact details of their meeting, US President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China have announced that they are making progress in narrowing their differences. Nonetheless, in regards to recent actions undertaken by the US, in opposition to the use of chemical weapons, there are several topics that we can infer were discussed during the Summit.
Before the meeting took place, Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International released the following statement: “As two of the most powerful leaders in the world, what President Trump and President Xi say and do on human rights reverberates far beyond their two borders. This meeting comes as both presidents are rolling back human rights protections, impacting millions of people in China, the US and across the globe. From refugees turned away at the US border to human rights lawyers languishing in Chinese prisons, the consequences of their contempt for human rights are devastating.”
Despite Amnesty International’s call for the US and China to discuss human rights, the president’s only spoke in generalities during the closing press conference. Trump did not use his anti-China rhetoric that was prominent during his 2016 election campaign and, instead, stated “The relationship developed by President Xi and myself I think is outstanding…” to which President Xi also added “I believe we will keep developing in a stable way to form friendly relations… For the peace and stability of the world, we will also fulfill our historical responsibility.”
One issue that Trump promised to mention was regarding North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, particularly in response to a missile test in Pyongyang, North Korea taking place this week. With North Korea potentially getting closer to being able to fire a ‘nuclear-tipped’ long-range missile, the US has responded by sending a group of warships towards the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula. In a statement released by the US Navy on Saturday, one day after the US-China Summit, The Carl Vinson strike group has been ordered to sail North, without a specific destination. China is the country with the most leverage over North Korea, so Trump would also need China to impose their own economic sanctions and do more to curb North Korea’s developing nuclear program.
However, China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and would not want to see the collapse of North Korea. Thus, the decisions made by the US would not be in China’s best interest. As such, it is most likely that China will not cooperate unless alternative trade deals could be negotiated, which again appears unlikely based on Trump’s stance towards China’s trade practices.
After the US responded to Assad’s use of chemical weapons by firing cruise missiles at a government-controlled airbase in Syria, the devastation in Syria would also be high on the agenda between the US and China. Although China has not directly addressed the Syrian crisis, China is important when considering diplomatic relations and their UN Security Council membership. In the past, China has sided with Russia and the Assad regime. According to reports by Russian news agencies, Russia has already condemned the strikes and has said this will “inflict major damage on US-Russia ties.” As well, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the US had warned Russia ahead of the strikes, but did not seek any approval from Moscow. It is no coincidence that the US decided to take action against Syria and North Korea at the same time, as the US wants to send a message that nuclear and chemical weapons are prohibited. Although President Xi did not mention this issue publicly, Hua Chunying Foreign Ministry spokesperson for China avoided directly criticizing the US, but stated “China all along opposes [the] use of force and maintains peaceful means in settling issues. We hope all parties stay calm and exercise restraint.” She also restated that China advocates for ‘political settlement’ on the issue in Syria and opposes the use of chemical weapons. Instead of the missile strikes by the US, China has advocated for “an evidence-based impartial UN probe into the allegation” regarding the use of chemical weapons. Nonetheless, China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has also used its veto powers to prevent sanctions on those responsible for the mass atrocities in Syria. Whether China will actually take any action, is another question.
Overall the US-China Summit has not given us any clear indication of how President Trump and President Xi plan to work together, particularly regarding Syria, North Korea, and general trade issues. The recent actions by the US do not reflect any of China’s international policy positions, and neither country has addressed their own human rights abuses. Although President Trump and President Xi appear cordial with one another in front of the camera, the US and China are on opposing sides, even if they have both publicly announced their opposition to the use of chemical weapons. Amnesty International has advocated for the US and China, as well as the other three permanent members of the UN Security Council to give up their power of veto “in cases where atrocities are committed.” This might be one response to preventing two of the world’s most powerful countries from wielding their political power for the wrong reasons and without consultation from the wider international community.